Downtown Anchorage caught my visiting brother-in-law’s attention. We have one. His town, Virginia Beach, doesn’t. I’m proud to take visitors to town to view the flowers, the independent stores, the museum and the green spaces of Town Square and the Park Strip that complement the urban spaces.
However, each time I travel Outside, I encounter town after town desperately trying to remain viable with little more than antique stores and coffee shops holding their core areas together. My thoughts always bring me back to Anchorage. Could we end up like these modern-day ghost towns?
The progression from being viable to something less, is subtle. Can anyone point to one action that started these towns’ decline? Many blame shopping malls. But Anchorage’s many malls haven’t diminished our core downtown. So how are we different?
While most people wouldn’t give it a second thought, it’s clear to me a few things are crucial to downtown’s viability. Foremost is the presence of city, state, federal and oil industry offices. Downtown is a major employment center that requires support services from cafes to barbers. Adjacent open space adds more than incidental support; the noon-time recreational value of the Park Strip and coastal trail help keep employees healthy and productive.
Tourists remain in downtown too. They often have only a few hours to spare. They find town walkable and can easily reach interesting places like the museum. Bike rentals and the coastal trail are natural partners that keep tourists around and engaged.
We are still small enough that we have only one Performing Arts Center—downtown, of course. And the newly passed Downtown Comprehensive Plan is written to include mixed use residential and commercial that should help ensure continued viability. So why worry about our downtown?
If there is one thing that can cause a city’s demise faster than anything else, it is a road. Think of what freeways have done to California towns. Yes, traffic from the other “bridge to nowhere” will destroy our carefully nurtured downtown. Big roads bisect towns and neighborhoods as if a wall were erected. They bleed resources and commerce from towns. The museum will not be able to hold outside events in the almost completed elegant front yard because of increased traffic noise. While C Street is busy now, increased traffic will make walking next to impossible.
The design of the Knik Arm Crossing will hurt much more than downtown. Even if traffic is diverted to Gambell St., my friends on Government Hill will lose their house, as will many others.
Tax revenues will go across the water with the bridge. The mayor-elect campaigned on how the bridge will open up new industrial lands, but I never heard how he intends to replace the lost revenues.
Some say we need the bridge in order to grow. Anchorage does not lack room to grow as much as it lacks leadership. We need a reality check. Gas will return to $5 a gallon soon, because the quantity is finite and developing countries are competing for its use. Our 1950s mindset wastes our taxes on road projects that will never relieve congestion, because more roads never do. We would be better off to first implement our citizen-derived land use plans that call for infill and redevelopment, better transit and a commuter rail to the valley.
Is there a point to having a project in our Long Range Transportation Plan, even though it might be years in the future, when it wasn’t there originally and for good reason? The bridge will divert virtually all our transportation funds for a long time. It will destroy what we’ve worked so hard to create—protection for and healthy development of our neighborhoods and city.
Is there a point when we need to become more involved in what some consider boring land use and transportation planning because doing so will effect whether our city will remain viable for our children? How many of us have now matured enough to not be suckered in believing another bridge to nowhere is good for us?